Gilbert (“Gil”) Cates, who died Oct. 31 at 77, was a multi-faceted theater, film and television producer and director, university dean and the patriarch of large at-home family Seders.
He collapsed in the late afternoon on a UCLA parking lot and an emergency ambulance crew was unable to revive him. According to UCLA sources, he had undergone heart surgery earlier this month.
Cates’ lengthy resume includes producer – and invigorator—of 14 Oscar telecasts, founding director of the Geffen Playhouse, founding former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and two-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee. He also produced and directed Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
In 1998, he co-produced the exuberant celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary at the Shrine Auditorium, which was nationally telecast.
Born Gilbert Katz in New York City, he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants Nathan Katz, a dress manufacturer, and his wife, Nina.
Following the example of his idolized older brother Joseph, also a director and producer, Gilbert Anglicized his last name.
In a Jewish Journal article by this reporter in 2000, based on an hour-long interview, Cates expressed some qualms about the name change and said he was astonished that many people didn’t realize he was Jewish.
A member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Cates said “I don’t lay tefillin, and I only go to shul on the High Holy Days, but I feel very proud to be Jewish.”
To the question whether his Jewish background affected his role as producer and director, Cates observed that the answer goes well beyond a count of plays with specifically Jewish themes and characters. For instance, he saw in “Harriet’s Return,” which dealt with Harriet Tubman’s struggle for the freedom of African-American slaves, a play of basic Jewish concern.
Cates stumbled into his profession by accident. He was a pre-med student at Syracuse University, and on its fencing team, when he was asked to instruct student actors in a production of “Richard III” on how to handle swords. He was so taken by the experience that he changed his major to theater.
Cates is survived by his wife, prominent gynecologist Dr. Judith Reichman, four children (including director-writer Gil Cates Jr.), two stepchildren, and six grandchildren. He was the uncle of actress Phoebe Cates.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Reichman was in Tel Aviv at the time of her husband’s death, where her daughter had recently given birth to a baby.